In The Courts

Saudi Lawyers May No Longer Need Male Guardian

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Saudi women are not allowed to enter courts alone. They need a male guardian, whether they're lawyers or parties to a dispute. But the government raised hopes in February that it would begin to partially relax that rule with a new law.

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(WOMENSENEWS)--Tala Hejailan, a 25-year-old Saudi, is the only female lawyer in a commercial law practice in Riyadh. She sits in her own area, separate from colleagues and superiors, only meeting with them for pressing legal matters.

Since she is restricted from acting on behalf of clients in court because she is a woman, she--like other female law graduates--serves as a legal consultant.

But the promise of a new law offers the hope of fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a "real lawyer."

In February, Saudi Arabia's justice minister announced that the government is planning to draft a law allowing female lawyers to try family law cases in court. The law is far from a done deal, however, as it would then need to survive various ministerial approvals and be signed into law by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. The king can also unilaterally adopt a law without ministerial approvals.

Female lawyers and law students say the Saudi government has been talking about this proposal for several years and they hope the February announcement signifies that passage will be coming soon.

"Like any child, when I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and other such books, I became excited at the thought of being a lawyer one day," Hejailan said in an e-mail interview. "I do see myself arguing cases on child custody, divorce and other family-related issues, once women are allowed to do so."

The ability to represent women, she says, will likely help many women who currently go to court without any legal representative and argue their own cases.

"Being represented by a professional female lawyer with whom these women can speak to freely will help achieve the required outcomes," Hejailan said.

CEDAW Modifies Laws

Saudi Arabia signed onto the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW, in 2000, but reserved the right to exclude elements that conflicted with Islamic law, according to a March 2010 report on women's rights in the Middle East by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization for democracy and human rights.

In 2004, King Abdullah asked his all-male Council of Ministers to create legislation and modify existing laws in accordance with CEDAW. The King appointed nine women to serve as advisors to the council on all matters of particular concern to women.

In the proposed legislation, female lawyers could try legal cases in court and would have permission to represent women for certain cases, such as those involving family law. Another key reform of the legislation is to eliminate the requirement that any woman in a court--whether a party to a dispute or a lawyer--be accompanied by a male guardian or "mahram."

In January, the Saudi government drew international outcry when it sentenced Sawsan Salim to one and a half years in prison and 300 lashes for complaining against harassment by government officials and appearing in court without a male guardian.

"If women report their cases to the police, they are often accused of ruining their family's reputation and are not taken seriously," said Nadya Khalife, a researcher with the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who is in touch with Salim's lawyer in Saudi Arabia.

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